From hand-pulled to battery-driven, rickshaws have come a long way

Who can ever forget the heart rending scene in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen in which Balraj Sahni playing Shambhu pulling a rickshaw on the streets of Kolkata — bare feet and sweating as he races with another rickshaw, carrying the girl friend of his master. But in this race to earn more money, the rickshaw loses a wheel and meets with an accident. Described as an inhuman and degrading mode of transport, hand-pulled rickshaws were banned in 2005 — more than a century after they were first seen on the streets of Kolkata.

From the time of hand-pulled rickshaws to eco-friendly battery-driven ones, this mode of transport has evolved over the years with changing socio-economic conditions. From ‘puller’ to ‘driver’, it has been a journey of indignity to dignity.

Life is, however, still drudgery for thousands of cycle rickshaw drivers, most of who come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. After struggling the whole day — pedalling from one place to another whether it is hot, cold or raining — many of them sleep either on their rickshaws or on pavements close to where they can park the rickshaws to save as much money as possible to send to their families back home.

But now there is good news for the homeless rickshaw drivers with a prototype rickshaw christened ‘Sukun’ launched recently that can double up as a makeshift home. The seat and back rest can be converted into a six-foot bed with a mosquito net; it has a solar panel to operate a fan, mobile charging port, reading light and a USB player. It also has a folding sun shade, a locker for storage under the seat and a shelf to keep essential daily items.

The name rickshaw was derived from the Japanese word jinrikisha which literally means “human-powered vehicle”. The first of these rickshaws pulled by men were seen in Japan in 1868.

In India, hand-pulled rickshaws first appeared in 1880 in Shimla, the summer capital of the British. Being a hilly place with narrow roads going up and down the slopes, rickshaws were pulled by four people — two in the front and two at the back with an extra puller accompanying them. As the rickshaw ran, a bell hung in the front handle would be constantly rung to keep the pedestrians off the way. Many from the elite society at that time owned these rickshaws; their class and standing in society was reflected in the dress of the pullers and the carriages decorated with different coloured rosettes. Ironically, while the masters flaunted their status by dressing up the pullers, called coolies, they were treated inhumanely.

Pamela Kunwar in her book Imperial Simla cites a case where a rickshaw puller Jageshar died after he was kicked by Mansel-Playdell, the Controller of the Army Canteen Board.

In 1932, there were over 2,700 rickshaw pullers and over 500 rickshaws in Shimla. After Independence, the rickshaws remained in use for over 30 years till they were phased out following a Himachal Pradesh High Court Order in 1968 that put an end to further issuing of licenses for hand-pulled rickshaws. With the invention of the cycle rickshaws, the ‘puller’ became the ‘driver’ and in India, these pedalling rickshaws hit the roads between 1930 and 1940.

The latest to hit the Delhi roads are battery-driven rickshaws. They are eco friendly, run faster and most importantly, the driver does not have to pedal. However, they cost almost ten times more than the cycle rickshaws. Suresh, who takes these rickshaws on hire at the rate of Rs. 300 a day, says he is able to earn Rs. 4,000-5,000 every day taking his riders around the India Gate.